Taylor Mac: A Joyfully Liberal Carnival Barker To Get Us Through These Terrible Times
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
I've been thinking how best to talk about what I experienced Sunday at Chapter II of Taylor Mac's irreverently epic, hard-to-describe, "performance art concert" called A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music. It is neither a careful history lesson, nor a thorough 24-decade survey of music, popular or otherwise — and it is also not a drag show in any traditional sense, nor a concert piece, nor a theater production like anything else any of us have likely seen (though anyone who saw Mac perform his five-hour The Lily's Revenge a few years ago, or something from the troupe of cabaret stylists and assorted freaks in his Tingel Tangel Club days, when multi-hour performances notoriously went on well into the early morning with no planned stopping point, have at least had a taste of Mac's love for "durational theater"). It is, above all else, a lengthy communal experience curated by a mad and hilarious genius of the stage, with the help of some extremely talented collaborators and musicians, that is like a window into a politically conscious, gender-bending, Radical Faerie-loving, liberal and academic thought-celebrating universe of joy and creativity that many of us feel desperately starved for right now. And it's a time-twisting, durational good time that serves as a balm and a call to action to tortured liberal souls and lovers of music and great drag alike.
As he (I apologize for not using Mac's preferred pronoun, which is "judy," only because it gets confusing in sentences, and Mac does identify as male) has in previous performances both here (in January 2016), and in New York — where he performed the complete 24 hours all at once, with no breaks, last fall — there are a number of rallying cries, raisons d'etre, and house rules that apply to each six-hour show he's performing at The Curran — Chapter I was performed Friday night, and Chapter II was on Sunday from 2 to 8 p.m., with Chapters III and IV, covering 1896 to 2016, coming this Friday and Sunday. First of all, there are no intermissions, though there are brief transitions between the approximately hour-long decade sections, only a few of which he uses to step off stage, with some costume changes happening right at center stage, underwear and all. The audience is free to get up and go to the lobby or bathroom whenever they like, within reason, with some food available in the lobby, though Mac asks that entire sections not all leave at once, because even during the transitions there is typically someone singing or playing music on stage. And like it or not, audience participation is an essential component to this entire work, and you'll be participating if you're there.
For each decade transition there will be a new, equally extraordinary gown by costume designer Machine Dazzle, who is an ersatz character on stage throughout. And each costume somehow references that historical moment — for instance, the Reconstruction era dress features a huge QWERTY "keyboard" across the bust, in recognition of the invention of the typewriter.
As for the rallying cries, there's "Perfection is for assholes," by which he means to excuse any mistakes or missteps that occur — though, remarkably, Mac has approximately 240 songs memorized, including about a dozen Walt Whitman poems that he rattles off as part of the 1846-1856 "smackdown" between Whitman and "father of American music" Stephen Foster, and I only saw him forget one lyric in all of Sunday's five and a half hours. There's also "nostalgia is the last refuge of the racist," which applies to a great number of songs in the Great American Songbook, like "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Dixie." And there's Mac's mantra about performance art itself: no matter what it does to the audience, be it anger, amuse, delight, bore, or annoy them, he has succeeded. "In performance art, there is no failure," he says.
Thus there are going to be moments in all of the decades that are more lull-you-to-sleep ones, or what-the-hell-am-I-watching ones, or holy-wow-this-is-incredible ones. That said, five and a half hours practically breezed by, and I'll let you trust Pete Kane's review of Chapter I for SF Weekly since I sat that one out (having seen half of it last year).
I'm all in for Chapters III and IV, because Mac has structured this lengthy piece partly in the style of a variety show where it's hard to know what's coming next. Some of the structural conceits, like the aforementioned Whitman-v-Foster smackdown, work incredibly well at keeping one's attention, as does his entire section on the Civil War in which he sings various songs to segments of the audience designated as pro-Union and pro-Confederate, and then stages what he's called "the queerest Civil War reenactment in history," which involves ping pong balls flying all over the audience.
For those who got called on stage — I'm looking at you local novelist Andrew Sean Greer and Chronicle critic Lily Janiak! — and there were dozens of them, the experience I'm sure became all the more surreal. Everyone who took part in the bizarro "family dinner" that's used to define the Reconstruction of 1866-1876 was then stuck up on stage for an extra hour as they became Martian extras in Mac's insane version of The Mikado set on Mars (meant to be a comment on Orientalism in general), which went on for another sometimes painful hour, mostly with the use of vocal filters that made everyone sound like The Chipmunks.
As for the history, and being a balm for liberals, this is the ineffable part. Rarely does one encounter a drag performer or theater artist as intelligent, quick witted, insightful, and charismatic as Taylor Mac. When he turns to briefly narrating various points in our nation's history, or gives his hilarious raised-eyebrow asides in reaction to variously offensive lyrics in the songs that are now the vernacular accounting of that history, he embodies the whip-smart, drag-painted queer history professor most of us never had. He doesn't claim or want to present all sides or hyper-accurate details of that history, and he says from the outset this is all going to be subjective. "We are all living with all this history on our backs," he says, "and we all need to figure out how to deal with that to move forward."
Yes, it's a "Radical Faerie realness ritual sacrifice," as he's said before, and the audience is both the sacrifice and the rapt congregation, and Mac is both the sacrifice and the all-knowing leader, as capable of cutting remarks as he is of great pathos and earnestness. He is trying to change the world, one six-hour (or 24-hour) performance at a time, and that is no joke.